A year on from Tokyo, Mona McSharry is still basking in the glow

Paris 2024 is already in her sights but she knows nothing will ever compare to her first experience at the world’s biggest sporting circus
A year on from Tokyo, Mona McSharry is still basking in the glow

MAKING A SPLASH: Ireland’s Mona McSharry. Pic: INPHO/Andrea Staccioli

It’s already been 12 months. More. Imagine. Mona McSharry started getting the prompts on her phone a few weeks ago. A year since she arrived at the Olympic village in Tokyo. A year since her first race. A year since she became the first Irish swimmer in 25 years to make a final at the Games. Great memories.

“It just makes me smile," she says.

Paris 2024 is already in her sights but she knows nothing will ever compare to her first experience at the world’s biggest sporting circus. How can it? There isn’t one thing she would change about her time at that entire meet. How many people can say that? That their first Olympic experience is a vast reservoir of positivity. A well to visit whenever needed.

And McSharry didn’t stop there in 2021.

Come December and she was excelling again in the 100m breaststroke, this time in winning a bronze medal at the World Short Course Championship in the Middle East. She had no expectations for it having focused on the Long Course for so long, but there was fun and a freedom in bouncing off the walls and that propelled her to the podium.

All of which fits neatly with the feeling that this is an athlete with the happy knack of peaking when it matters most. A World Junior champion and multiple national record holder, she needed a PB to qualify for Tokyo and smashed it. And on it goes... If this all looks easy to us then she is painfully straight when insisting it’s not.

“Honestly, I have had a mixed bag. When I look back at the majority of my big events I have mostly been able to pull it out of the bag, and I could definitely think of a couple of cases where I haven’t, but they’re not talked about and kind of forgotten.

“I feel like I’ve had both. I remember a couple of races this past season where I have just broken down before the race and even crying and just feeling like … just not believing in the ability that I have and just the fear of letting myself and people down.” 

Some of that is post-Games related and the heightened expectations emanating from her performances in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, but it has manifested itself at the University of Tennessee where the onus at meets is not on the individual so much as the team of ‘Volunteers’ as a whole.

There is that fear of letting down the 40 or so other swimmers she trains and competes with, people she sits with on ten-hour coach journeys from state to state throughout the college year and across the intense collegiate circuit.

“Sometimes I feel like that when I race for Ireland as well. I feel like I’m letting the country down when I don’t swim fast. I know that’s unrealistic and I know that everyone is behind me - I hope as a person rather than just my performances - but it is hard sometimes because your mind does go to those horrible places and it is hard to switch it immediately.” 

Working with a sports psychologist in Knoxville has helped. Visualisation, breathing: it all goes into the mix and the Sligo woman has taken the opportunity to work on this side of her game in individual as well as collective sessions.

She finds comfort in thinking her races through long before the starting gun. It’s not so much about what times she might post, more about how she will feel as she glides through the water and the thrill of the competition.

All of which complements her majoring in kinesiology which is the study of the anatomy, mechanics and movement which, unsurprisingly, she finds beneficial given her immersion in a sport that asks so much of everything from your abdominals to your quads, deltoids, glutes and lats.

“It’s really interesting. Being an athlete, I enjoy learning about that stuff because I can apply it to myself and my career as a swimmer so that’s really nice.” 

There is an impatience too. Sitting around for days on end waiting to compete isn’t her thing so she entered herself into four races for the European Championships which are taking place at Rome’s magnificent Stadio del Nuoto right now.

The 50m freestyle was pencilled in as a fun filler. Alongside that is the 50m breaststroke, the 100m in which she advanced to the final via yesterday’s swim and the 200m which has cornered her interest for much of this year.

Part of that is just down to the need for something new after zeroing in on the 100 for so long. Added to that is the belated understanding that she needs to ease her foot off the accelerator after that Olympic odyssey and facilitates a longer-term focus.

“It’s a weird one because … I have always wanted to be good at both and for a long time with the Olympics coming up I knew that the 100 was how I was going to qualify so the 200 was kind of put on the back burner. That made sense.

“Making a final and swimming so fast in that one event, it was really nice to kind of switch off and focus on another event and add a little bit more. It can only help my 100 as well because the more endurance I have for the 200 will only stand to me.” 

There were no times or placings in her head as she made for the Italian capital after a few days snatched in Dublin which were spent catching up with family over from the west and harnessing the salt water of the Irish Sea. The focus now is the same as Abu Dhabi when she claimed that silver. Just swim.

“You need to relax,” she says, “and just enjoy the racing.”

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